Asked how she made the journey from Colombia to the U.S. border, Franggerly Garcia used her fingers to mimic walking on a tabletop – step by step.
Asked what was the hardest part of the journey, she found herself overcome with emotion.
“Todos,” she said.
Garcia has been living in Spokane since June following her flight from her home country of Venezuela. She’s among the millions who have escaped a historic crisis in the South American nation, where economic collapse, political instability and crime have wrought havoc.
Garcia’s story is featured in a documentary produced by Latinos en Spokane, the nonprofit organization that works to support and empower the Latino population here. The documentary, “The Immigration Resident,” will premiere Friday night at the group’s first formal fundraiser, an event that organizers hope will help contribute to the group’s growth and inform the community about the lives of immigrants who live and work here, often unseen and unappreciated.
“We wanted to highlight Spokane stories,” said Jennyfer Mesa, founder and executive director of Latinos en Spokane. “It tells the stories of four families here.”
Mesa said Garcia’s experiences illustrate the changing and complex nature of immigration from countries south of the U.S. border. Many people think only of Mexican immigrants crossing at the border, but in fact a growing number of immigrants are fleeing from humanitarian crises throughout Central and South America.
When they arrive here, they encounter an immigration system of dizzying complexity, a political landscape where they are often demonized and a country that welcomes them as laborers – but not as neighbors.
“You want the labor, you want the culture, you want the food – but not the people,” is how Edgar Franks, a farm workers union organizer who is a part of the documentary, put it in an interview.
The documentary relates the experiences of four immigrants living in Spokane, including stories about parents whose children were detained in secrecy for weeks on end. It also tells of the formation and growth of Latinos en Spokane, which started in 2017 with efforts to resist the controversial Border Patrol sweeps at the Spokane Intermodal Center – a transit hub far from any border – and to provide immigrants information about their legal rights.
The warrantless sweeps, occurring on buses going nowhere near a border and in which hundreds of immigrants were detained or arrested, were criticized for violating passengers’ constitutional rights and for discrimination. After years of controversy, Greyhound agreed to stop allowing the sweeps and paid $2.2 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the state of Washington.
Latinos en Spokane has continually expanded its efforts to help immigrants arriving in Spokane, and opened its center in 2020 at the corner of Monroe Street and Maxwell Avenue. It added a neighboring space a couple of years later, and recently leased a third office space next door. The nonprofit has seven full-time employees and other contract workers, and relies heavily on volunteers to help with its range of services.
Those include helping immigrants find housing, work, health care and other services; the organization offers legal clinics and food assistance, language classes and translation services, and other help. It is in the midst of opening a commercial kitchen and food truck. The bulk of its roughly $600,000 annual budget comes from grants and contracts to provide services; it is hoping to increase the proportion that comes from community donations.
Garcia fled Venezuela seven years ago, at first for the neighboring countries of Ecuador and Colombia. She’s part of a massive wave of refugees and migrants, with more than 7.3 million Venezuelans leaving their home, as it is ravaged by poverty, hunger and crime.
“It’s absolute chaos right now,” Mesa said.
Most of those refugees resettled in other Latin American countries; the United Nations calls it “the largest external displacement crisis in Latin America’s recent history.”
The Biden Administration last month granted temporary legal status to some 472,000 Venezuelan refugees already in the country earlier this year, making it easier for them to get work permits. Another 272,000 or so Venezuelan refugees had been granted similar status earlier.
The new rules make it easier for Venezuelans to work while seeking asylum – something that some governors and mayors had sought as they struggle to care for an influx of asylum-seeking migrants – but also fueled political battles as the immigration crisis at the border intensifies.
Garcia and her youngest son lived in Ecuador and Colombia for more than six years before setting out for America. During a short interview in which Mesa translated, she talked about walking thousands and thousands of miles over several months, sleeping outside, and occasionally receiving help along the way – food or a spot in a tent.
She and her son crossed through the Darien Gap, a roadless jungle area at the isthmus between Central and South America where the Pan-American Road is interrupted for around 66 miles. Franks described it as “the most dangerous place in the world” for the threats of the wilderness and the danger from human traffickers and other criminals.
Garcia found it overwhelming to discuss the details of her journey; she said she still suffers moments of depression thinking about it.
“It’s not only about me,” she said. “I remember mostly what my son had to go through.”
Her son is now 9; she would try to lift his spirits while they walked.
“I would tell him to think of this journey as if you are a tourist, as an adventure,” she said.
Garcia arrived at the U.S. border on foot in June and surrendered to immigration authorities. She and her son were flown to Spokane and directed to Latinos en Spokane, who helped them get housing and other support.
Garcia has been granted a temporary, discretionary status known as parole that border agencies can grant in cases of urgent humanitarian need or public benefit; she hopes to get her work permit so she can return to what she did for a living before she came here – working as a hair stylist.
Mesa said immigrants each face a different set of circumstances at the U.S. border. There are different parole, amnesty and work-permit regulations for immigrants from different countries – from Ukraine to Honduras to Venezuela – but once they arrive here, they share the common goal of trying to work and start a new life, Mesa said.
“Your nationality determines your experience (with the immigration process), but ultimately these are all Spokane stories,” she said.